The Magazine of South Carolina

The Island Everyone Knows

The rich, the famous and the average. The sporty and the plain. The jet set and the daily toilers. You'll find them all at Hilton Head. . . .

by Aïda Rogers

Everything seems to come together on Hilton Head Island. Land meets sea, nature meets man, past meets future. Shopping centers coexist with ecotourism; high-brow culture rubs up against Gullah heritage. Northerners and midwesterners come south and evolve into something different. People of all colors and incomes live in everything from mansions to mobile homes. And money-making development continues with strict codes and fierce feelings for leaving nature alone.

It's definitely an interesting mix.

Drive down US 278, the island's busy main road, and observe the oddness. There's a pickup in front of you, a BMW behind. And on the side, in the median, a wild turkey is trotting steadily to who knows where. On Hilton Head, man and bird fight the traffic together.

"We are different," says Mayor Tom Peeples, a Ridgeland native who's lived on the island 23 years. "We have different problems. Where else is there where people are not trying to develop? Our problem is how not to get run over."

No lie. Anyone who's been on 278 in the past few years will report its congestion. Residents tell tales of hour-long, bumper-to-bumper, rush-hour traffic just to get to the other end of the island. Tim Doughtie, a businessman who came here in the early '60s, says the difference between now and then is once you had to drive 45 minutes to Savannah for groceries and dental check-ups; today you have to wait in traffic 45 minutes to get the same thing on Hilton Head.

Even Charles Fraser, the man who masterminded Hilton Head's unique development, calls the road "an absolute pain." But he will quickly point out - as others will - how peaceful and beautiful Hilton Head is once you get off the road. That's where you see the Hilton Head of postcards and brochures: the straw-hatted women on bicycles, the men in golf carts, the houses obscured by trees. It's also where you see herons rising from the marsh, live oaks drenched in Spanish moss and dolphins dancing in the morning sun. Natural beauty it has in abundance.


DEVELOPMENT TOOK PLACE around nature, not on top of nature," explains Peeples, himself an example of the dichotomy on Hilton Head. A builder who loves the island for its untouched quality, Peeples is that rare good old boy who doesn't hunt. Like many on Hilton Head, he prefers to admire birds and deer in their natural habitat. "That's one of the reasons Hilton Head was just right for me," he says. "The early developers had a real appreciation for what was here and the way they developed the island is what makes us different from other areas."

That style of development made the island famous. Buildings blend into nature, and billboards are not allowed. Only muted earth tones are used. That means there's a lot of green and brown on Hilton Head. It also means the McDonald's has no golden arches and the Red Roof Inn has no red roof. Neon? A four-letter word here.

"That's what Hilton Head is all about," Peeples says. "It's not like Anywhere, USA, and frankly, we strive for that."

The negative of such good taste is that it can blind you. Tourists frequently get lost because everything looks the same. It's worse at night because lights are minimal. "Get a map," Peeples says mildly, but admits it takes awhile to adjust. Fraser, the original developer, is campaigning to add airport-style signs to 278 to help direct visitors. "Since we have this one spine road, it has to be treated for what it is: an overcrowded road that's always going to be overcrowded. A third of the cars will be people visiting here for the first time."

To ease the congestion, lights have been synchronized for better traffic flow. Most importantly, the Cross Island Parkway has been designed to make island travel more efficient. Now under construction, the parkway is scheduled to be finished in October 1997.

Fraser, 67, says he anticipated 20 percent of what Hilton Head is today. He first saw the island in the early '50s and was captivated immediately. At the time, the island was mostly hunting grounds for wealthy northerners who bought 80 percent of it after the Civil War. The rest was small farms inhabited by "native islanders," descendants of slaves who worked on Hilton Head's prosperous sea island cotton plantations. About 2,500 native islanders live on Hilton Head today, according to Thomas Barnwell, a developer and native islander.

Fraser's father and two other men - all three from Georgia - bought much of the island for lumbering purposes. Fraser, however, persuaded his father to save some land to develop a nature-based residential community. While lumbering occurred over much of the island, the southern tip became Sea Pines Plantation, Hilton Head's first and most famous secured, gated community. Begun in 1956, Sea Pines is the site of Harbour Town and its landmark hexagonal lighthouse, circular-shaped harbor and chic boutiques. It's also where the world-famous MCI Heritage golf tournament and Family Cup Magazine tennis tournament are played.

Fraser proved himself with Sea Pines, and he proved himself again by successfully reviving the use of covenants, which he studied at Yale Law School. An old legal concept, covenants are restrictions in land deeds that can't be changed, no matter how many times the land is sold. Developers must abide by the conceptual master plan, and land owners must abide by rules governing their homes and yards.

Result: a strictly ordered environment where property values aren't jeopardized by a neighbor's unusual taste. When Fraser formed The Sea Pines Company to develop Sea Pines Plantation, his covenants were listed in a 40-page "private Bill of Rights."

"It was absolutely radical," Fraser recalls. "Every lawyer in the state of South Carolina told me the courts would not enforce the covenants I'd written." Eventually, the state Supreme Court took note of Fraser's good-looking communities and upheld his covenants. The Sea Pines Company went on to develop similar communities on Kiawah Island, Amelia Island, FL, and Brandermill, VA.

Today, Fraser lives in Sea Pines and works on projects in Orlando, Biloxi, California and Belize. He notes that people who started their careers at his company are continuing his philosophies across the United States.

Fraser's efforts weren't ignored. In 1964, brothers Fred and Orion Hack - also part of the original timber syndicate - built a similar community at Port Royal Plantation on the north end. Palmetto Dunes, developed by the Self family of Greenwood, opened at mid-island in 1969.

"And from there, things really took off in every direction," says Dr. Robert Peeples, a retired Episcopal priest and president of the local historical society. "I can remember when you could buy all the land you wanted on Hilton Head Island for $500 an acre."

Not so today. Oceanfront property is $1 million an acre - if you can find it, says Peeples.

Hilton Head, population 28,647, attracts young and old from all over the world. Some are permanent residents, others part-time. Most came here first on vacation. The island is host to about 1.6 million visitors a year.

Among the amenities: nine marinas, 25 golf courses, 300 tennis courts, 3,000 hotel/motel rooms, 1,000 timeshare units and 6,000 villas. The island also has two RV resorts and 18 properties with meeting and convention space. More than 200 restaurants, almost 40 shopping areas and 12 miles of public beach make Hilton Head a vacation heaven. In terms of tourism dollars, the Hilton Head area ranks third in the state, following the Grand Strand and Charleston.

Though not everybody lives in a plantation - those neighborhoods with bike paths, a hotel, golf course and tennis courts - many do. There are 10 on the island, most close to full. The island doesn't have enough housing for lower income and middle class people - a problem that has spawned a task force to find solutions. Many people who work in hotels and restaurants are bused in from the mainland, unable to afford Hilton Head's high housing costs. Town leaders are worried that this labor force, which isn't large enough, will dwindle further when those employees find work at the new Sun City retirement community near Bluffton and the Disney complex in Hardeeville.

Some believe the plantations have created divisions among residents; there's a thinking that each plantation is an island unto itself. "Fragmented" is a word you hear a lot. "It is a very complicated environment," says Thomas Barnwell, a black developer and provider of low income housing. "The development is economy-driven, not community-driven. That's the difference."

Because some resorts are owned by groups of investors who don't live on the island, only the bottom line is studied, not employee needs, Barnwell says. Plantations discourage cooperation and participation, he adds, though he believes that's changing as more people realize they need to work together to improve life on the island.

"It's gradually turning into a community, but it's taking one heck of a long time," he says. "Everybody's running their own show differently."


HILTON HEAD IS a heck of a long way from where it used to be. Barnwell, 62, has watched his home evolve from a quiet island of forest and farm to a world-class resort. He plans to write a book about what Hilton Head was like before the ferry came in 1953 and the first bridge was built in 1956. He'll recall how the marsh tackies, farm horses descended from Spanish conquistador livestock, were let loose on the marsh in winter before being rounded up for spring tilling and fall harvesting.

But in many ways, the Hilton Head of Barnwell's youth isn't much different from the Hilton Head where he lives today. Visit his office or stray down other side roads and you're in deep country, a land of dirt roads, small houses, old churches and clothes hanging on the line. Some houses are painted bright colors. According to Barnwell, there are more mobile homes on the island than anything else.

Contrast that to the new $10 million Self Family Arts Center, located on the main road at mid-island. Behind its doors are an art gallery, 350-seat theater and meeting rooms. Spokeswoman Sloan Dunnagan says $9 million was raised before the center opened in March - some of it from people off-island. "We're going to have an impact on the whole state. This is enhancing our area and Hilton Head as a resort destination."

Some people think the center will have a unifying effect be-cause it will provide resources and a state-of-the-art facility for everyone. Others agree it will become a town center, something Hilton Head doesn't have, in the classic sense. Most are glad to have one place for the lively arts scene on the island. Hilton Head boasts 23 different arts groups, including a symphony, professional theater, dance troupe, jazz society, choral groups, painters and barbershop singers.

"Culturally, this island offers anything and everything," says Jim Minnix, lobby manager at The Westin Resort, one of two AAA Five Diamond resorts on the East Coast. Minnix came here for health reasons. Discovering its cultural amenities was a happy surprise. He, like others, say Hilton Head offers the best of both worlds: resort living in a small-town atmosphere, and big-city amenities. People feel safe on Hilton Head, where they engage in a number of outdoor and water sports and dine at restaurants serving food from around the world. Says Tuzy Snyder, spokeswoman for The Westin: "For a small space to have so many world-class restaurants and beautiful golf courses and tennis courts - it's a real plus."


SNYDER, HOWEVER, is one of many citizens concerned about the speed at which the island developed. Now it's time to slow down, survey what's happened and proceed carefully, she believes. "We're beginning to re-discover what Hilton Head really is," she says, explaining that the island lost sight of its original aesthetic and environmental goals as developers and opportunists came to make their for-tunes. "You could kill the goose that lays the golden egg."

It was the advent of "stack-o-shacks" - prefab condos too densely built - that spurred Hilton Head to incorporate in 1983. Today the town continues the island's early development beliefs with ordinances for land management and tree protection. A town committee reviews buildings outside the plantations, along the waterfront and major roads, to make sure they meet aesthetic requirements.

A controlled environment emphasizing nature can create a peaceful life, Snyder says. "It's not hectic. If you want to simplify your life and get back to basics, this is a good place to do it."

Snyder is a member of the Island Conservancy, a new group promoting Hilton Head for its lesser-known attributes. Hilton Head has a wealth of history, wildlife, culture and ecology. More than 350 species of native American birds have made Hilton Head home, along with loggerhead turtles, wild boar, alligators and bobcats. Three shell rings formed by native Americans around 2000 BC can be found on the island; there are only 17 on the East Coast. Those native Americans also are thought to have invented fiber-tempered pottery in North America. A praise house in Mitchelville, the first freedmen's village in the country, thrived during the Civil War. In short, there's more here than golf and tennis.

The Island Conservancy is launching a public awareness campaign off-island; symposia and educational outreach pro-grams are in the works. Unlike some on the island, this group believes in tourism - it just wants thoughtful planning. "It behooves everybody to pay attention to where we are in the development cycle and to move on with redefining or reinventing ourselves," Snyder says. "People think there are two different views. There's really one view. We all want to maintain the quality of life."

Conservancy members range from an archaeologist to a golf marketing professional.


THE BIG STORY NOW is development in southern Beaufort County, says Janet Smith, assistant managing editor of The Island Packet. "That's where all the action is."

Hilton Head financial institutions, construction and real estate companies have satellite offices in the Bluffton area, for instance. Anyone driving onto the island will notice the new shopping centers, gas stations, golf courses and housing developments before crossing the bridge. Some families who lived on Hilton Head have retreated to Bluffton, favoring a quieter atmosphere that still offers Low Country scenery. Newcomers have opted for Bluffton anyway. In essence, Hilton Head and Bluffton are in a second role reversal.

"If you think about it, Hilton Head was the afterthought 40 or 50 years ago and Bluffton was the main thing," Smith points out. In 1825, Hilton Head planters came to Bluffton to escape steamy summers. So did Savannahians. Bluffton was a major merchant center as well as a resort. "You still see people who come down just for the summer," says Smith, a Bluffton resident for 10 years.

It's no secret that Hilton Head, the second-largest island on the East Coast, is near "build-out." Most of the plantations have no more room for development. Fraser predicts an 80-per-cent drop in development in four more years; Peeples says about 10 years. Peeples doesn't think Hilton Head will be too different in the next 10 years. As for Fraser, he's pleased. Though road planning and growth management were poor, the privately planned golf communities "turned out substantially better than I had any reason to anticipate," he says. "I'm comfortable with it."


HILTON HEAD IS SHAPED like a boot, and if it were one, it'd be a Gucci. Or so people think. But there are plenty of middle class and poor families on the island, citizens say. "The perception is we all drive Mercedes and make $250,000; the perception is people have money running out of their ears," says Peeples, whose son, at USC in Columbia, has reported those notions. "We really are seen as rich fat cats."

Another misconception is that most people on Hilton Head are old. Not so. "The median age is 34 and going down," Peeples says.

Tourism officials want the world to know Hilton Head is an affordable, year-round destination. In the winter, tourists can spend the night for $29 at some places and for $89 at The Westin. Come in the off-season, invites Janie Treon, vice-president of the Chamber of Commerce Visitor & Convention Bureau. "You can do anything in the winter here that you can do in the summer, except swim in the ocean."

Still, there is great wealth, and sometimes it surpasses good taste, says Doughtie, who came to Hilton Head when he was 17. Doughtie, 50, remembers an island with one "forlorn dirt tennis court," a place so uncrowded you could drive around the traffic circles the wrong way. In the early '60s, the William Hilton Inn was the island's sole meeting place, and locals could knock on the kitchen door to buy steaks from the chef.

Today, the William Hilton Inn is gone, and with it some of the original spirit of the island.

"It was simplicity, nonpretense," Doughtie says. "You were coming to some place that didn't look like somewhere else. Today, if you were chloroformed, blindfolded and woke up in one of these places, you wouldn't know where you were. You'd say, 'I'm in a Mediterranean fishing village. I'm in a Spanish hacienda. I'm in an Irish village.' We kind of lost an intellectual honesty about what we were, and now, with the pursuit of 'bigger is better' and 'Let's transplant things from other places,' we've lost a lot of our charm."

Doughtie, a former advertising executive who plans to move to Bluffton, doesn't think the island is ruined, just different. "I think it's sad. It's one of those inevitable things that happens just about everywhere, unless you have a benevolent dictator."


MONEY CAN BUY good things, though. These days Hilton Head can brag about a new airport, a bigger library under construction and a hospital known for its work with cancer and Alzheimer's disease. And good people are doing good things. In fact, more than $3 million in volunteer hours was given in 1995, reports Linda K. Silver, director of the Volunteer Center of Hilton Head, Inc., a not-for-profit clearinghouse that places volunteers in the area.

"It is unbelievable how many volunteers we have," she says, adding that 300-400 new volunteers come through her agency each year. "I'll bet you easily two-thirds to three-fourths of our population are volunteering somewhere."

The Volunteers in Medicine clinic, where retired physicians and nurses provide free health care to the island's poor, has gotten national attention and is being replicated elsewhere. The Museum of Hilton Head Island, which provides guided beach walks, lectures and history tours, operates with four employees and 100 volunteers. According to Chris Pendleton, the museum director, the island is full of big-time professionals who took large pay cuts to do similar work here. "We want to live our lives the way we want to live it," she says, adding that people are friendly on Hilton Head because they all want to be here.

"It's a regular community," says editor Smith, who believes islanders are church-going, well-read, family-oriented people. "It's more like every other place in America than most people realize."

Still, there are differences. The mayor can talk knowledgeably about recycling water for golf courses. Juniors at Hilton Head High know to schedule the prom between Family Cup tennis and MCI Heritage golf. Kids know a yacht is more than 42 feet long; they know the difference between an egret and a heron. And when they leave the island, they're in for a different world.

"Orlando kills me. There's so much neon and so many signs," says Kim Gorn, coordinator of history and archaeology at the museum. Reared on Hilton Head, Gorn wasn't prepared for the onslaught of roadside marketing in Florida, where she went to college. "The first time I went on spring break to Daytona Beach, I almost died. It's shocking to me."

Gorn, 23, feels lucky to have found a position in her field in her hometown, where the old rims the new. She can tell you about the Indians who hunted and fished here long before British captain William Hilton saw the island in 1663. And she can tell you how much fun it is to be young on Hilton Head, where she and her friends rollerblade to shopping malls, sail and hang out in pretty weather.

Now that she's been gone, she can appreciate what's here. She gestured toward a maritime forest of oaks, marsh and palmettos.

"Growing up, I just thought this was normal," she says. "I think it's beautiful now."

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